When Channing Tatum stood up and revealed his bare ass to the camera a minute or two into Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike — which the actor conceived of and produced based on his own experience as a teenage dancer in an all-male exotic revue — the audience in my screening burst into a near-unanimous extended cheer. The gifts that made him a viable exotic dancer at age 18 have recently made the 32-year-old Tatum the male movie star of the moment. His appeal is based on working-class humility paired with otherworldly charisma, an impossible body and the intelligence to make his use of them seem effortless. Now, as then, he never fails to give us what we paid to see. But what is he really revealing? The highly calculated, Magic Mike is pure Hollywood self-mythology — a neo-Depression musical, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for shitty times, an origin-of-the-star story and a projection of that star's hoped-for future.
Tatum's Mike is the main attraction at Xquisite, a Tampa pop-up strip club whose male dancers cater to an all-female clientele. Stripping is just one of wannabe furniture designer Mike's many jobs; on a roofing gig, he's assigned to mentor scrappy newbie Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old rebel with neither cause nor clue, who recently fucked up a football scholarship and sought refuge on the couch of his shit-together sister Brooke (intriguing newcomer Cody Horn). Mike, his own career peaking at age 30, takes pity on the penniless Adam and brings him into the Xquisite fold. That seems to be the way things go around there; Mike himself was discovered on the street by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the club's manager/main hustler, who keeps talking about moving the show to Miami and dangling equity in front of his stars to keep them invested. As young Adam embraces this new world of easy cash and responsibility-free pussy, Mike, natch, increasingly wonders if there's a different and better life available to him, particularly because neither the fetching Brooke nor a bisexual academic played by Olivia Munn seem inclined to see a male stripper as anything but a fuck buddy.
The film suggests that the ladies' prejudices are valid. "Who's got the cock?" Dallas asks Adam during his first dance lesson. "You do. They don't." The idea that these Kings of Tampa, as members of the ragtag strip crew call themselves, are giving the local housewives and sorority girls something they don't have and desperately need is stated several times in earnest dialogue, but the actual transactions are shown as farce. (The movie's cruelest joke is sneaked into a wacky-times montage: One of the dancers lifts an eager fat girl out of the crowd ... and throws his back out.) That this film contains an ironic patriotic July 4 dance spectacular — with McConaughey as Uncle Sam leading a brigade of topless boys in fatigue pants in choreography belaboring the connection between automatic weapons and anatomical ones — is a given, right? No less spectacular than this sleazy homage to Holiday Inn is the scene in which Tatum dons upstanding citizen drag to apply for a small-business loan. Told his low credit rating brands him as a "distressed" client, Mike fires back: "I read the news. I know the ones in distress are y'all."
Occupy Chippendales? If only. The few moments wherein Magic Mike calls American institutions into question are undercut and overshadowed by the film's dated insistence on the dream of legitimacy. Mike and friends move in a cash-only society, hitting a glass ceiling any time they try to pass in the straight world. This milieu, typical and unremarkable in so much current European cinema, is given in Magic Mike a retrograde, cautionary spin. In this under-the-table economy, it's a slippery slope from cruising Craigslist for day-labor gigs to showing one's ass for tips to big-money drug deals. Eventually, someone drives away from the strip club in tears, not because this is a plausible turn of events for the character, but because that's what has to happen in a Hollywood movie about the sex industry.
An extremely conventional backstage story, Magic Mike is occasionally enlivened by Soderbergh's aesthetic curveballs — the halo-shaped lens flares suggesting Adam's halcyon view of the club; a long night of debauchery with major plot consequences rendered as an experimental study in color and shadow. But the denouement, built around the hoariest of contrivances concerning the cyclical nature of stardom, squarely casts its lot against self-commodification, by extension damning the margins and endorsing the mainstream.
That throws a wet blanket on the movie's primary point of interest: its self-reflexive portrait of three distinct points in the Hollywood himbo life cycle. As the still ogle-worthy old-timer, McConaughey is Magic Mike's most wasted asset. Dallas' onstage patter incorporates the actor's most identifiable catchphrase — "all right, all right, all right!" — which he injected into the popular imagination via Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. In that film, McConaughey's Wooderson was the older guy who continued to hang around teenagers, almost vampirically. Twenty years later, McConaughey is essentially performing the same function here. But why? At the most fascinating moment in his career, McConaughey gets stuck in an underwritten role that demands physical exposure, but is (sorry) only skin-deep.